Published in the first edition of a cloth-covered button, the fashion 'zine that Gillian Terzis, Caroline McCurdy and I put out in 2007.
It’s a well-worn joke amongst some of my friends that I never watch pornography, only read it. It’s not really a joke, though. Seduced by words at an early age, I’ve never abandoned them. We’ve spent so many quiet moments, words and I, curled up together on couches, sprawled out in the summer grass, spending rainy mornings under the doona, that I could never cheat on (saucy) books with film. Besides, have you seen those women? Porn stars might be held up as paragons of feminine sexuality, but their clothes are fucking awful.
The nice thing about erotic fiction – well, ‘classic’ erotic fiction, anyway, the stuff that makes reading lists at uni and is feted for its restrained and subtle prose – is its attention to detail. The cut of a dress. The arch of a high-heeled foot. Female authors in particular seem to understand that their heroines aren’t seducing anyone with personality alone. The little black dress didn’t become cultural shorthand out of thin air.
Nowhere is this as well-understood as in Pauline Réage’s The Story of O. Written for her lover after he suggested a female writer could never match the erotic intensity of, say, de Sade, it’s a sado-masochistic fable about the sublimation of self through really kinky sex. It’s also a neat example of the way clothing becomes inseparable from the constructed sexual body. If pornography, as Andrea Dwarkin writes, is like fairy tale, telling us who we are, then the glass slippers and glittering ball gowns of erotic fiction tell us who we want to be.
When The Story of O was first published in 1954, it caused an outcry in Paris, with many denouncing the (consensual) sexual violence and the French authorities bringing an obscenity case against it. They lost, and O won the Prix des Deux Magot a year later. Much of the protest was over the first chapter, set in the sweeping estate of Roissy, where O taken by her lover René to be initiated into a secret society where women are constantly sexually available, whipped, traded, and, improbably, idolised. This first chapter, written in a burst of creative energy and constituting a love letter from Réage to her lover, Jean Paulhan, has also been the main focus of serious academic criticism, the subsequent chapters written primarily to make the text long enough for publication.
Much has been written about the things the men at Roissy do to O (as Dwarkin, a woman with no love for pornography, puts it, she is “she is fucked, sucked, raped, whipped, humiliated, and tortured on a regular and continuing basis[;] programmed to be an erotic slave, René's personal whore”), but most criticism tends to focus on literalised sexual acts, the explicit. Many critics note that one of the things that betray the author’s gender is O’s detailed and meticulous description of costume, but fail to acknowledge the significance of Réage’s attention to dress. As it is, dress is something that René does to O, that the men of Roissy do to her, that she does to herself. And as such, it is as significant an index of shifting sexual power as are the sex acts themselves.
At Roissy, O is stripped by two pretty young women, “costumed like eighteenth-century chambermaids, with long, light, puffy skirts that came to the floor, tight bodices that made the bust rise and swell”, gauze kerchiefs and long gloves. These women are painted, powdered, and chained – each wears a collar around her neck and wrists. This is the costume that O is to adopt, which gives the appearance of sexual modesty, with its old-fashioned cut, hints at restraint with its tight-laced corset, and with its flowing skirts and prohibition on underwear, leaves O and her colleagues sexually available at all times.
It literalises a fantasy of immediate sexual access that predates Erica Jong’s ‘zipless fuck’ by a good twenty years, and leaves little to the imagination. It is also lovingly, erotically described – Réage’s language when writing about clothes is often more sensual than when describing actual sex, which, in the French formalist tradition, tends to be cool, elegant, and superbly restrained. It is telling that O is a fashion photographer – her eye for small details and dress mirroring Réage’s keen interest in the small, erotic details of clothing’s relation to the body.
The Roissy costume is not the only dress described in meticulous, loving detail in the book, but it is the one that for many emblemises the power relations taking place at the estate. As such, it’s been enthusiastically embraced by a subsection of the fetish community, for which the Roissy chapter, with its bondage, sadomasochism and high count of sex acts per page, is mandatory reading.
The most prominent example of the costume’s popularity can be found at Odress.com, where the “Odress” is modelled by middle-aged women, posing seductively, and where unintentionally humorous copy expounds the virtues of the costume. “Time after time the dress will have the desired effect on both the wearer and the observer,” it breathlessly exclaims. “Wear an Odress to a fetish event, and you will stand out in a sea of leather. If it is your desire to show off (or be shown off), wear an Odress. They will notice.”
The Odress is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, designed after the garments worn at Roissy and described in great detail by Réage, it literalises a fantasy that, as imagined by the reader, is vastly more seductive than the reality. Réage’s cool, elegant prose evokes limpid silk, wasp-waists and elegant draping – she describes, for example, O’s “slender torso rising like a flower from the mass of green satin billowing out from her hips”. Compare this to the women displayed on the website, whose teased hair and thick waists fare poorly under the photographer’s flash. Réage has an advantage that these women don’t, and that is of seducing us with our own fantasy, that of an ordinary woman transformed by clothing into an idealised, voluptuous female form.
Secondly, and crucially, it posits a schism between what men find attractive or seductive, and what clothing women themselves are seduced by. This paragraph is particularly telling: “Women generally dress to impress each other (sorry guys), but the Odress is made to impress both men and women. In every single instance that we have observed, when a woman enters a room wearing an Odress, conversation ceases, there is a moment of silence while everyone takes in the view, and then all the females rush forward to express their delight while all the men stand there envisioning her in all kinds of various scenes.”
That is, the clothes at Roissy, after which the Odress is modelled, are an explicitly masculist construction of female sexuality. That the women in the Odress scenario jabber like birds while the men are endowed sexual agency (and so power) is no coincidence. O herself finds the clothes cumbersome, tripping over in her impractical, high-heeled clogs and finding the skirts overlong. When she does later fantasise about the model (and conquest), Jacqueline, wearing this costume, we are given to believe that O’s behaviour and so fantasy are indicative of her inherent sexual masculinity, both because she is behind the lens of a camera and so holds the authoritative, ‘male’ gaze, and because female homosexuality at the time was often seen as symptomatic of a latent narcissism and high sexual aggression – that it, a self-annihilating ‘maleness’.
Thirdly, and most importantly, it almost completely misses the point. While the fetish community is enamoured of the Roissy scene, O and Réage both seem to find it faintly ridiculous in its lack of subtlety and quasi-Baroque pretence. O makes this explicit – “broad daylight gave their costume a curious and threatening aspect” – and mulls over the “opera-style” valet outfits disparagingly. For O, the artifice of the costume, heightened by daylight, seems to circumvent sensuality and instead present the body as object, stylised into a hyper-feminine form and encumbered by accessories that women would never wear. The extent of this stylisation seems excessive to O, and Réage suggests obliquely that the costume serves to present the men at Roissy with an exaggeratedly ‘desirable’ femininity to offset the homoerotic undertones of their activities.
Réage writes with a dry humour about the impracticalities of the costume, more so once O returns to the outside world and must conform to René’s prohibitions on certain styles of dress. O spends two pages musing over what items in her wardrobe she can keep and discard, finding practical ways to get around restrictions of certain styles of sweaters, redesigning bras in her head (taking notes about modifications to give her corset-maker), and innovating a new type of petticoat so as to keep her favourite dress. Her own style is austere, chic – circle skirts, pageboy jackets, long gloves – and a long way from the caricature of sensuality presented at Roissy.
O also complains about the impracticality of René’s restrictions, which are designed to give him (and anyone else in the Roissy society) instant access to her, and to impede her movements, reminding her of her primary nature as a sexual object. Réage, as with Jong, punctures the fantasy of constant sexual availability with its practical implications, acknowledging that the fantasies clothing engenders are artificial and often self-sabotaging.
And this might just be it. For all its adulation from the S&M community, for all its condemnation from radical feminists in the ’70s, for whom pornography was the theory and rape the practice, The Story of O keeps a sense of humour about the realities of sexual commerce and predominantly masculist fantasies of women’s sexual availability. It also hints at the tension between men’s ideas of the sexualised woman and an aesthetic that women themselves find seductive. The exaggeratedly feminine silhouette is cumbersome and disregards the variations between women’s bodies that O, in her capacity as photographer, so keenly perceives. While O is initially seduced by René’s fantasies, it is her own that, in later chapters, come to the fore, freeing her of faintly ridiculous costumes and leaving her clothed in simple outfits that nonetheless render her sexually powerful. By the end, she has done away with clothing completely, paraded in front of prospective lovers in only an owl mask and chains. For O, free of chafing corsets, crippling heels, and naked to the world, true sexual freedom has never been more complete.
‘Pauline Réage’, four years before her death, was revealed to be Dominique Aury, née Anne Declos, the famous and much-respected Parisian editor and scholar. When Aury went public with the information that she was the author of the exalted and reviled Story of O, many of her colleagues were surprised. Aury dressed soberly, “like a nun”, in dark, sombre colours and simple, austere cuts (here are echoes of O’s sober page-boy jacket, of her sensible, chic heels and pleated skirts). She was famous for knitting herself a suit during the war and yet, there is an anecdote in a recent biography that hints at the beginnings of Pauline Réage. As soon as she started making any real money from teaching, Aury bought an extravagant, modish beaver fur coat. It was the only real lavishness that ever interrupted her sober uniform, but it stuck in the minds of those who knew her, sensual, fashionable, and like a second skin.